US concerned about China's military investments

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says he is worried by Beijing's 'heavy investments' in the sea and air capabilities of the China military and its rejection of military contacts with the US.

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Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Wednesday stated that he is “genuinely concerned” about China’s expanded military programs. His comments are the strongest criticism of People’s Liberation Army since the US and China blamed each other last week for an ongoing freeze in military ties, and Beijing rescinded an invitation to US Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

China initially stalled all military-to-military relations with the US in January this year, when Washington announced a $6.4 billion arms package for Taiwan. Recent events threaten to destabilize overall US-China relations.

Admiral Mullen said in a speech in Washington that he was worried by China’s “heavy investments” in sea and air capabilities and its rejection of military contacts with the US.

IN PICTURES: World's Top 10 Military Spenders

Responding to Mullen’s statement, the Chinese government on Thursday called for more trust between the two militaries, reports Bloomberg. China will “never be an aggressor,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in Beijing today, while calling for the US to foster “mutual trust."

Mullen’s comments follow a tense exchange between Secretary Gates and Gen. Ma Xiaotian, the deputy chief of the general staff of the PLA, during a defense conference in Singapore on Saturday. According to The New York Times, General Ma criticized Washington’s arms sales to Taiwan, while Gates complained that overall US-China relations are “held hostage” by the Taiwan issue and the PLA’s unwillingness to develop ties.

Analysts say the stand-off, which led to Beijing rescinding Gates’s invitation for a visit, reveals the disconnect between the two militaries. The New York Times reports:

Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, a Beijing analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the Obama administration’s hopes for cooperation with Beijing “have been more optimistic than current scenarios warrant.”

“China and the US continue to have fundamentally different values, goals and capabilities,” she said, citing China’s reluctance to press for the truth in the sinking of a South Korean ship, an attack that an international investigation determined was the work of North Korea….

The United States has struggled with limited success to recruit China as a partner in United Nations actions, not only against North Korea but also against Iran’s nuclear program.

Military ties between the US and China were further strained last month when Beijing refused to endorse an international investigation that showed North Korea was responsible for sinking a South Korean warship in March.

Previously, during the Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the US and China on May 24, Rear Adm. Guan Youfei of the PLA criticized Washington’s strategic approach, claiming that the US still viewed China as an enemy.

According to The Washington Post, Admiral Guan’s outburst reveals the fragility of US-China ties:

"Guan's speech underscored that 31 years after the United States and China normalized relations, there remains a deep distrust in Beijing. That the United States is trying to keep China down is a central part of the party's catechism and a foundation of its claims to legitimacy….

"More broadly, many Chinese security experts and officials view the Obama administration's policy of encouraging Chinese participation in solving the world's problems – including climate change, the global financial crisis and the security challenges in Iran and North Korea – not as attempts to elevate China into the ranks of global leadership but rather as a scheme to enmesh it in a paralyzing web of commitments."

In April, when Chinese President Hu Jintao and President Obama met on the margins of the two-day summit on nuclear security, both were all smiles. Bilateral relations appeared to be warming after a cold winter, The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time.

Relations were never as bad as public perceptions appeared to have them, maintained Charles Freeman, a China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Certainly there’s been this perception of growing friction, at least in part as the Chinese have tested the mettle of a new and young US president,” Mr. Freeman told the Monitor. “But both sides realize that the relationship is extremely important and that getting it wrong would be disastrous for China as well as for the US.”

In an op-ed for The Korea Herald, independent analyst Dr. John Lee argues that the PLA’s elusiveness is part of Beijing’s strategic approach in engaging with Washington:

In truth, the Chinese reluctance to commit to meaningful high-level military-to-military talks is about much more than Taiwan. Fostering ambiguity is a well-established approach in both ancient and contemporary Chinese competitive thinking. Ensuring poor transparency and a reluctance to engage in open dialogue is at the heart of the PLA’s strategy in dealing with a much more formidable American competitor….

The PLA is pursuing an “asymmetrical” strategy that does not necessarily seek to match America in terms of military strength (for the moment) but which is designed to make the costs of any military action in the region against China prohibitive.

The US remains by far the biggest military spender, spending $661 billion on its military in 2009 – more than six times as much as China.

IN PICTURES: World's Top 10 Military Spenders


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